For decades an in-joke among comedians, "The Aristocrats" started out as a simple but effective vaudeville gag with a great punchline. Since then, it has evolved into quite possibly the dirtiest joke in the world, passed around among comics like a "secret handshake," in the words of Penn Jillette. Unprecedented in its access to working comics, this documentary provides an exhaustive, and exhausting, look into how the joke works. The film necessarily crosses every imaginable standard of decency and taste, because, as George Carlin puts it, the whole intent behind "The Aristocrats" is to "violate someone's boundaries."

Carlin provides an astute reading of how the joke operates before delivering a shockingly scatological version of it. His is the first of many full readings of "The Aristocrats," and it points out the strengths and weaknesses of both the joke and the film. More than most comic bits, "The Aristocrats" derives its humor from the person telling it. Its body is a free-flowing improvisation on every possible taboo: incest, bestiality, coprophilia, etc. Delivered by an expert, the joke is irresistible. In the wrong hands, it's an exercise in disgust that reveals more than necessary, or wanted, about the comedian telling it.

Some pros handle the joke adroitly. Tom and Dick Smothers deconstruct it as if it were written for their act. Martin Mull and others provide alternative versions that are equally funny. In a brilliant performance, Kevin Pollak impersonates Christopher Walken telling it. On the other hand, Howie Mandel, Taylor Negron and a few others crash and burn so spectacularly that their careers may never recover.

Remarkably, the joke surfaced in the aftermath of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, during a Friars Club roast for Hugh Hefner. As recounted by New York Observer journalist Frank DiGiacomo, Gilbert Gottfried attempted a joke about terrorists that elicited boos. In desperation, he turned to "The Aristocrats," winning over the crowd in a performance that was captured on tape by Comedy Central. The portions included here, with a bemused Hefner sitting stoically while the audience cracks up, are priceless.
Director Paul Provenza's approach feels raw and improvised, with low-res footage captured in offices, diners and, in one instance, a restroom. He follows tangents on whims, finding just as many dead ends as unexpected payoffs. The hyper editing, with comics stepping on lines and sometimes finishing one another's thoughts, gets tedious quickly. Even so, Provenza could have improved the film a lot by paring away some duller bits. But there's no denying the power of the joke, or the equal parts delight and embarrassment The Aristocrats provokes.
-Daniel Eagan